Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Sticking the Landing

I've recently been reading through "Swords v. Cthulhu" - an anthology of short stories.  For the most part, it's an interesting collection of fantasy/horror fiction.  The one big exception being an annoying tendency for many contributing authors to fumble the conclusion.  It's not a problem exclusive to creative writing.  Far from it, most forms of entertainment media have the same kind of issues to varying degrees.

Sadly, when it comes to video games, I can't say it has been a recent problem.  Many older games have had notoriously awful endings, in no small part due to the assumption that few players would actually ever make it the finish before moving on to something else.  Hence, developers rarely felt the need to put real effort into that last bit before the credits roll.  A couple of games that I think concluded on a strong note are Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Vandal Hearts, Ghouls and Ghosts, as well as the original Valkyria Chronicles.  Contrary to expectation, a large number of highly regarded story-driven games kind of drop the ball at the end.  Pretty much all the Silent Hill titles have overly obtuse finales, and the Soulsborne series (for all the attention I give it) unanimously finishes up in a manner far too abrupt for the amount of time and effort it takes to make it there.  That's not to say every game needs to conclude with an hour long cutscene, but when you look at the amount of building up the Mass Effect trilogy did you're left wondering what the heck they were thinking by slapping on those half-ass red/blue/green endings.

The problem can be so pronounced within the industry at times I sometimes think that, when coming up with a narrative arc, game designers should figure out the ending first and then work their way back from there.  Otherwise this whole player-not-finishing-the-game-because-of-crap-endings becomes a self-perpetuating loop.  One way I've seen developers try to circumvent the issue is by playing up the idea of a trilogy, or at the very least a definite sequel.  Everything from triple-AAA titles like Halo 2 to indie games such as the Banner Saga 2 try to pull it off.  Occasionally, it works out well enough, but more often than not we get Half-life 2.  Some games don't even make it that far.  The Order 1886 just stops abruptly at what would normally be the second act in a three act story with no sequel forthcoming.

These sorts of screw-ups are why I prefer self-contained plotlines that give a sense of closure even if there's a sequel in the cards.  From a business perspective, I get it.  Publishers are convinced they'll make more money off their IPs if they leave the customers wanting more.  Sometimes these sort of monetization techniques can get blatantly exploitative; such is the case in Dead Space 3's real ending being paid DLC.  Obviously, a non-trivial number of players got sick and tired of all these half-baked story arcs to the point that companies like EA and their ilk decided that narrative driven experiences are no longer profitable.  Gee...I wonder who made it like that...?  Maybe it's not good business sense to trash an integral part of game design just to make a quick buck.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Master of Stellaris

I've made three attempts to play through Stellaris and only once did I actually reach the end-game crisis.  I've yet to achieve any of the elusive victory conditions a single time, but my understanding it's rare to see someone make it to the finish so perhaps my experiences are not unique in that sense.  Now that version 2.0 of the game is out though I feel like I want to give things a fourth try.

Most of the changes made in the "Cherryh" update jive with my own preferences.  I've always found hyperspace lanes much more interesting than warp drives or wormhole generators to the point that I lock in that form of space travel exclusively for all empires.  Being able to fortify starsystems and create chokepoints makes the galactic "topography" considerably more important.  It also encourages strategic planning.  Attempts to reduce the viability of "deathstack" tactics are a welcome addition as well.  I found that in my previous playthroughs of Stellars it was boring when on the offence and easily countered when on the defense.  To clarify that second point a bit more, I found that while the enemy ships were busy with orbital bombardment duty I could easy raid their infrastructure.  Hence, the opposition would eventually have to yield for lack of resources need to maintain upkeep.

This brings me to one of my biggest gripes with the old system - warscores.  As far as I could tell the only thing that it really accounted for was planets conquered.  Loss of mines or research outposts counted for nothing and even major fleet engagements, in which one side achieved a decisive victory, would barely move the needle.  It was all a bit silly and tended to result in conflicts that dragged on for ages.  The new system promises to change things up considerably, not only in terms of how wars playout, but also ship design and even planetary sieges.  Overall, it looks to be a considerably better experience than before.

As the saying goes, Paradox games are like fine wine (they get better with age).  However in this case the flavor has changed considerably.  In fact, I'd say that the taste is much closer to the Master of Orion remake with regards to certain fundamental gameplay mechanics.  Still, much of the game remains very unique among the 4X genre in no small part due to an overall grand strategy feel.  That said, I like to have stand-ins for the Alkari Flock whenever I include custom empires in my galaxy.   

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Two Pronged Attack

"It's the 90s all over again!" when it comes to video games and government legislation.  In the wake of recent school shootings the president of the United States wants to (maybe?) have a meeting with the ESA to discuss violence in video games and the potentially negative impact it's having on the youth of today.  Coming from the opposite direction is a grassroots push to get loot boxes and other quasi-forms of gambling mechanics out of mainstream gaming.  Should enthusiasts of this beloved hobby of ours be concerned?, yes and no.

If you asked me ten years ago about what the World Health Organization is calling "gaming addiction" I would have told you it's a load of crap.  However, given the direction over the last decade or so of publishers going out of their way to introduce psychologically researched methods of manipulating players out of their money, it's not hard to see how some people might get hooked into becoming a "whale."  I still think that the underlying vulnerability to these sorts of predatory practices is caused by issues such as OCD or depression.  Treating that fundamental problem should be the overriding priority since gaming addiction is at worst a symptom of a much larger concern.  Additionally, there are still a lot of games that do not deal in micro-transaction based revenue streams.  The vast majority of games with "addictive" mechanics are MOBAs, MMORPGs, competitive online shooters, and free-to-pay (not a typo) mobile games.  If you are like me and not really into any of these particular sub-genres then I'd say you're relatively safe.  The thing is companies like WB interactive, EA, and Activision are pushing hard to turn the industry into nothing but these sorts of games; all branded under the "live services" PR label.  Speaking as someone who enjoys single-player narrative-driven experiences, I can't say I have been very happy with the direction the industry is going in for a long time now.  Does that mean that I welcome government regulation?...not really, but what other recourse do we have?

Boycotts have proven to be notoriously ineffective.  The ESRB/ESA are as corrupt and useless as the teamsters union cercia World War II.  FYI, did you know that the ESRB doesn't actually vet any of the games it tags with those E, T, M or AO labels?  The publisher just submits some paperwork, pays a fee and that's it.  What do they do then?  Well...aside from pocketing money for next to nothing, ESRB does pass some cash over to the ESA for bribes - excuse me - "lobbying" government representatives to look the other way.  Back in the 90s when the ESRB first came into existence they did a good job of compromising between the opposing groups.  Concerned mothers got their MPAA-style rating system while simultaneously not having to violate the first amendment.  This time around though, things are a bit different.

Contrary to Extra Credits' claim, I don't see any artistic value or merit in loot boxes.  In fact removing them from the hobby entirely would probably greatly improve things from a developer/consumer perspective.  The only real beneficiaries here are publishers, who (suprise-suprise!) give a lot of money to the ESA.  It's really just about profiteering, although that hasn't stopped some groups from trying to play the censorship card anyway.  The ESRB's attempts at self-regulation this time around are also a joke.  Unlike their original rating system, which is a step up from what the movie industry uses, this decision to tag any product containing in-game purchases is not only overly broad, but easily circumvented in that a company could introduce loot boxes through software updates anytime post-launch and avoid the label altogether.

So should we be concerned?  It depends on who you are and what you stand for.  More than anything else though it's a matter of a rich and powerful few getting to decide things for all the rest of us...and that sucks...even more than having to pay real money for additional save-slots in Metal Gear Survive.

Friday, March 2, 2018


Apologies, if there has been a glut of Bloodborne related posts, but I've been playing the game quite a bit recently so once more into the nightmare my friends.

One of the neatest tricks Bloodborne pulls off over the course of the game happens around the midpoint when the thematic elements gradually shift from gothic horror to cosmic horror.  The werewolves, witches and beastmen of the early game steadily give way to floriecent alien flowers, the tentacular "moon presence" and Ebrietas, Daughter of the Cosmos.  It's a great way to mix up enemy variety and also serves as a means to differentiate Bloodborne from the Castlevania series.  A number of Youtubers and writers for various gaming outlets have already pointed out how the H.P. Lovecraft Mythos relates to Bloodborne, but there are a few interesting details that have been overlooked by others (or simply ignored due to time commitments).  Regardless, I'd like to mention a bit more about said details here.

The Brain of Mensis in Bloodborne is probably the most obvious parallel to a Mythos entity found in one of H.P. Lovecraft's short stories, "At The Mountains of Madness."  In this case it's a Shoggoth, described as bubbling blobs able to form eyes and mouths at will.  They are also a slave race dominated by an even more powerful society of extraterrestrials referred to as "The Elder Things."  In Bloodborne it's easy to identify the enslavement aspect in that the Brain of Mensis is suspended from its tower perch by chains and rivets.  Nothing profound, but there might be a connection to the Slime Scholars found in the Lecture Hall.  My first thought when I encountered them was that they were students reduced to hideous monstrosities.  However, in the Lovecraft themed short story "Fat Face" by Michael Shea, there is a Shoggoth Lord which is a more advanced version of its kin in that it has learned how to take on the form and mimic the mannerisms of humans.  So perhaps the Slime Scholars are the opposite of what I initially thought in that they are actually Shoggoths studying how to appear more human.

Silverbeasts are only found in the nightmare realms of Bloodborne, which is fitting if they are meant to be inspired by Gugs.  What's are Gugs?  They are semi-intelligent humanoid creatures that inhabit the Dreamlands and make an appearance in the story "Dreamquest for the Unknown Kadath" by H.P. Lovecraft.  Gugs are also known to use simple tools (including torches) and feed on wayward dreamers with their vertically oriented mouths.  Near the city they inhabit is a graveyard filled with stone monoliths and, at the center of it, The Tower of Koth.  These little tidbits of information match spot-on with the Nightmare Frontier found in Bloodborne.

Last is the Garden of Eyes, an enemy found exclusively at Byrgenwerth.  The Mi-Go, as described in "The Whisperer in the Darkness," are a close match, insect-like creatures that emit a buzzing noise.  Unlike many of the lesser Mythos entities, Mi-Go are not simple-minded animals, but rather scientists  by nature who specialize in genetic manipulation.  Hence, it makes sense that they'd mostly be doing their thing at a place dedicated to higher learning.  Additionally, the Mi-Go have a habit of collecting human brains in cylindrical containers.  It's a process which, oddly enough, doesn't kill the victim.  In fact people contained in the brain cylinders are able to converse with others provided special audio/vocal devices are attached to the container.  Disturbing stuff, but it is well matched by the Garden of Eyes in that their main form of attack is to leap on the player character's head in a move that inflicts no damage yet causes frenzy (the Bloodborne equivalent to insanity) to rise precipitously.

Anyway, those are just a few details I wanted to share.  None of them are especially important nor well fact you could even say it's esoteric knowledge...but maybe you've gained a bit more insight...